On Exploration (Part I)


When I was growing up my imagination was never held captive by the endeavors of explorers.  I’m not sure why… I believe I was probably  more interested in actually being outside and looking around for myself, however meager those researches were in comparison.  Christopher Columbus and James Cook and Francis Drake were never part of the archetypal repertoire that defined my youthful urges.  I was even less moved when forced to read about these demagogues, starting somewhere around fifth grade… Christopher Columbus being sent by some Queen to find a new trade route by which to expand the empire while I passively witnessed what a fourth or fifth hand narrator had to tell me about this character who mistakenly found America instead of the West Indies, in the margin a little Victorian glossy picture of a guy with a moustache and what looked like jester’s pantyhose, bowing before a royal court.  And then next is the chapter about the pilgrims.  The emphasis on the man, the explorer, I think has always seemed strange… like the whole place is associated with him, even though plenty of people were already living in the place he “found.”  I just looked up “explore”… ex plorare… literally “to cry out.”  Explorers cry out.  Something like, “I found it.”  When we were leaving the Arctic last year, Brendan Griebel (archaeologist) was telling me about an aspect of his PhD thesis being an analysis of the old explorers’ Arctic maps.  He wanted to translate them as maps of the individuals’ desires.  The map of a land starting as the urge in someone to go somewhere that hasn’t been visited before.  I don’t mean to speak about one explorer or another in a pejorative tone… because I’m pretty sure there are as many kinds of explorers as people.  I have spent some time now reading about the Arctic and about a few of those folks who came up here to look around over the past few hundred years.  This place has been the subject of the armchair explorer’s delight for something like two thousand years… starting with the idea of Thule.  Ultima Thule.  A majestic frozen land to the North where there are strange lights, gelatinous seas, ice mountains, mystical ice creatures, and home to the hyperboreans–those living above the north wind, Boreas… a tribe of immortal ice giants, by some accounts people with only one leg.  Pytheas, a Greek explorer from the second century B.C. is supposedly the first explorer to chart the Arctic seas of Ultima Thule, as described by Polybius in his Histories. (I would have much preferred to read Polybius and about the one legged hyperborean giants early in school than Christopher Columbus… both are appropriately history).  It is debatable whether Pytheas “found” the Shetland Islands, the southern tip of Greenland, Iceland or perhaps only northern Ireland.  Did he meet Druids, Vikings, or another native people?  No matter what he found or did not, the Inuit were already up here, living year after year, way further north, with two legs, and getting along quite well despite having not been discovered yet.

I think one bifurcating factor when I contemplate an explorer is something along these lines: is this person voyaging out to carry back a story… to return to London and put on a tuxedo and address the Royal Geographic Society about his findings in the Arctic after which there is a reception with champagne and caviar in a room filled with cologne, shiny black shoes and people who are desperate for the outré (armchair explorers) surrounding and questioning our manor is this person going out there because it’s fun?  Those are (potentially) two different people.  Personally I wonder about the explorer who trudges mile after mile, oblivious of the native peoples, ethnographic background of the place, and archaeology, just to set foot there, plant a flag and take a picture… and bring a story back to London.  It doesn’t sound attractive to me mostly because it does not sound fun.  I would also be pretty chagrined to say I did something like that first, or found, cried out, a place which already had many many very well situated inhabitants with their own language and culture.  There are of course those adventurers who are bold and pure… who go for the going, who have fun being in dramatic and perilous landscapes, I think Amundsen was so, Hillary, Moitessier… lately I have been reading about Samuel Hearne… who worked for the Hudson Bay Co. in the late eighteenth century and was so good at learning from natives that he was able to live off the land by himself and adopted wearing furs (because they work so much better in Arctic climates) and komiks, poilus, etc… he was the first European, and perhaps first person, to go from Hudson Bay overland to the Arctic Sea in one go, more than 2,200 miles to the northwest.  I like the stories of the guys who go native as it were.  (If you’re interested in reading an incredible account of someone who adventured and loved the process so much that he could not reconcile it with the waiting parade at home… so just stayed out there, check out A Voyage for Madmen.)

Anyway, I am lucky enough to be up here in this Arctic region surrounded by 1) people who choose to live here, 2) people who have always lived here, and 3) people who are here to adventure.  (For the sake of this little foray into the idea of exploration, let’s divide the realm of explorers into tuxes and furs… and I’ll describe one of each from recent explorations of my own… of the gravel streets of Cambridge Bay.)

This past winter I was here with Brendan and at some point near the end of our stay he had been in communication with an Englishman called Richard Best who was planning a sort of epic kayak trip… from here to Gjoa Haven, about four hundred miles by paddle to the East.  He had invited Brendan, who was deliberating about it.  I have done a fair amount of kayaking, mostly whitewater, and told Brendan he would be welcome to come to Portland and hang out for a month and I’d teach him to roll and get acquainted with the water and the boat.  He ended up being too busy.  On this trip, luckily enough, I ran into Richard Best, who was here completing the finishing touches to his skin-on-frame kayak–that he built here–in preparation for the trip.  He was waiting for another fellow from Engand, Glen, who would accompany him to Gjoa Haven, leaving about the  21st of July.  As I discussed in the last post, there is still tons of ice up here.  At that time, last week, we had been going out to the sea every day and monitoring the ice situation (fishing)… and I was visiting with Richard almost every day… and he was growing nervous about the ice situation.  Once it is all broken up, the ice can shift quite dramatically… and–according to Brent Boddy, a local resident and explorer in his own right–can completely fill the bay back in here… which was extremely hard to believe looking at the huge bay of open water… until I saw it happen.


This is not in the bay directly in front of town, but just out past West Arm, where the sea opens up slightly between Victoria Island and the Mainland… a lot of people have little cabins out there and we had been there the day before and there was NO ICE.  It had all blown in from the west and stacked one two-ton block upon another for as far as you can see.  (Char will come in under the protection of ice, so I thought it would be a good fishing situation until I almost fell into the water as a piece of floating ice I was standing on disintegrated, only teetering on another piece below it, below the water line.)  It’s treacherous.  This picture was taken two days after Richard and Glen had departed.  Their plan had been to paddle around the Victoria coast line to the west until they reached a small strand of islands about forty miles away and then make the trip across the sea to the Mainland coast, another forty miles or so, broken up by this string of islands… the longest time in open water about ten miles.  At the last minute they had decided that the ice situation might be too difficult (which turned out to be right on) and they hired a float plane to take them over to the mainland.  I offered to help them rig the kayaks and load gear and get over there.  So I was fortunate enough to make the trip about seventy miles from here to a pristine white shell beach on the Mainland.

Here is the same area (as the above photo) two days prior:


It’s hard to see how far out that sea extends under the plane, but it’s far.  The ice was ( and is still) moving in the direction of Richard and Glen.  I also got another account from a different explorer (aviator), who had flown over the area they are currently paddling and said that it appeared ice was locking the Mainland pretty well.  After seeing how quickly the ice can move, I got a bit nervous for Richard and Glen.  I think the worst thing they’d have to endure at this point is simply staying put and waiting for the situation to clear.  They also have good dry suits and could attempt paddling a bit and then portaging over the teetering wind blown ice and then paddling again… but look at that ice.  Hard going.


Here are a couple of the shots I got in preparation for the float plane (de Havilland Beaver) flight…


Richard’s is the darker, less flexible boat, being carefully strapped to the pontoon of the plane.

From the air, here’s the ice labyrinth they were avoiding:



This is where I’m going to leave you:

The beach:

This is Richard with an absolute bat shit storm of mosquitoes invading all of our personal spaces.  I’ve never experienced a bug situation like this.  It’s a remarkable sensation… an audible buzzing sound extending many meters around your head and a sensation all over your body that mosquitoes are landing and doing their thing. 


I think Glen was kind of pissed that I took this picture, but it was one of the most awesome economic transactions I’ve been party to.  Glen paying Fred for the float plane ride across to the mainland:


As we lifted off the water and ascended into the ether above the Arctic, Cambridge Bay very quickly fell away, the plane picked up to 120 MPH and we flew.  Over the sea, over the ice labyrinth, for about forty minutes… as we navigated along the coast of the Mainland, looking for a place to land, I realized that I had never been to such a remote place.  I realized that there is no more remote a place on earth, than this… really thousands of miles from any kind of emergency service like a hospital, thousands of miles from any kind of ordinary civilization outside of these tiny Arctic hamlets.  This sensation filled the plane.  I knew what Richard and Glen were doing.  I could feel their excitement and trepidation, being left in this rocky place with only a skin boat and everything they needed to pack into it, hundreds of pounds of food and gear… only a layer of skin separating a harsh expedition from an emergency.  So we left them there:

Fred humored me in buzzing them on the beach once… the last time they would hear the sound of a motor for a month… the last time they would see anything made by man.  I kept them in the corner of my vision for another few seconds and as the de Havilland droned away and picked up to speed, it penetrated me quite viscerally how far away these gentlemen are from… anything.  A huge flood of feeling arose in my body… I saw all of Richard in a moment, a veterinarian from England who’d left his family to come make this trip because he loved it… leaving Cambridge Bay, where he’d made friends with about twenty kids–who were very reluctant to let him go–and charmed the adults he shook hands with, who had studied the kayak because it’s beautiful and decided to come here, build one and paddle it across the Arctic, because it’s possible, and fun.

I had encountered the fur species of explorer.

The others will have to wait, because it’s three o’clock in the morning and I have to do my job tomorrow.

Northern Sensations

I’m returning to the Canadian Arctic for the third time in this year.  I will have spent 25% of the past year in the Arctic, in Cambridge Bay (Iqaluqtutiaq), Nunavut, and that fact is sinking in this time.  I’m looking at the place in a new way this time, this summer; right now it’s eleven thirty p.m. and the sun has not even touched the horizon yet, and will not… it will skirt the norther radius of the plate for another hour and a half and then begin to rise again.  This time, not accompanied by Brendan–arctic scholar and archaeologist–but by my friend Ben, my carpentry conspirator: because his eyes are fresh, seeing this place for the first time, I’m re-experiencing it with him to a degree.  There are roughly 70 days here where the sea is not locked up with ice, an even smaller window when a sea lift (freighter) can get into the bay harbor (one rusty pier) and deliver all the vitals for the next year: diesel, heating fuel, aviation fuel, trucks, tractors, ATVs, skidoos, houses, furnaces, building materials, dry goods, container after container of those things determined necessary.  So this is the time that people are running… really in a flat out sprint with the day, to excavate for new house foundations (4″ or so can be removed down to permafrost to set house jack stands on the ice-clay hard pack), perform exterior maintenance on buildings, sealing, retro-fitting siding, windows, repairing vehicles and large equipment, administration for the arrival of the coming life line of materials, including–for the territory of Nunavut, 39,000 inhabitants–an almost $400,000,000 fuel expenditure that must be carefully inventoried and stored.

Looking out of the plane window, about 500 miles above tree line, the ice looks like it’s really pretty decrepit, like you could split it with a canoe:


Any of that ice upon which you can see white, however, is anywhere from 2-3 meters thick still:


I’m kicking myself for not bringing my wetsuit now because you could easily walk out the ice for miles, intermittently wading and quickly swimming from one piece to another… and get to some really good char fishing.

Anyway, there is a lot of ice out there still, this July 21st.  This is last night at about nine p.m.:

Walking around here–again–I am impressed with the raw reality of the environment.  Everything I’m used to is stripped away.  The town bears evidence of what it’s like to build up a place based basically on necessity, not on a marketplace or business strategy… and again I remember that I am not who I think I am.  I am one liver, one large and one small intestine, one spine, one brain, two hands, two eyes, two carotid arteries, two sciatic nerves, cartilage, bones, fat, hair, one spirit, and one pumping heart… and that’s all.  I remember leaving here last February and flying into Portland at night, looking down on the vast expanse of the grid, the glowing electrical web of the city, and thinking, “it’s burning hot.”  It looked ferocious and feverish compared to where I’d been (here), a peaceful dark frozen pillow on the top of our earth, it looked unnatural and sickly, not warm like the moon rising over the sea, spreading a soft light, one little moon rock reflecting the only true fire, below our horizon, ninety three million miles away.  Take away those things you come home to, your “job,” your art hobby, your addiction to an after-dinner drink or TV show or your new pair of shoes or computer or vacation to Mexico, or all of the most of the stuff that isn’t necessary… and what’s there?  I’m not sure I’m going to be able to answer that except by saying I’m getting the sensation of it here, where things seem clearer, basic.  The only way human life is possible in a place like this is by the death of animals… the animals hold the passage to life here, and that pathway is only possible through their own death: the terrible contract set up by whomever, wild architect of this planet, maker of the contract between all living things.  We know that this contract is real because there are still native people here, doing–in a way pretty closely related to how they used to manage–what they’ve always done:

I can imagine the relative horror of an environmentalist looking at this scene… this year’s muskox slaughter was less than what they normally shoot for: 250… I think they got around 190 muskoxen this year, harvested all the meat, and will tan and use the hides.  You might wonder, is this still necessary?  I guess it’s an interesting question; I’ve looked around at some websites where environmentalists are complaining about sovereign nations whale hunting, collapsing the problem of Inuit hunting whales with what the Japanese do.  I don’t mean to start that argument: to me, being here, it appears that it could be no other way… to ask them to stop would be like asking the muskoxen to be other than they are.  (Remember: America is the nation that ruined the whale, over-fishing every ocean to the point of eradication,  largely using it for lamp oil… to SEE by, not to live by.)  When you’re here in the cold, it likewise becomes obvious that the only way to be out in the cold is by the use of animal fat… an hour out in minus 45 is possible with the fuel of caribou stew and seal fat… and very dangerous and uncomfortable with a blueberry muffin.  When you cut into the flesh of an animal, there is that contract… all of those guts you clean out are virtually the same as your own… and what you clean and keep will move through your own and power up you, not the you you think you are, just you.

The tea by the fire and soup simmering on the stove and cribbage game with friends and warm electric light, snow falling outside, warm winter Christmasy spirits inside… that’s there and it’s yours, but only in the same balance as the hard arctic wind cracking over your head, a gust of inhuman cold blowing down over your elk hide parka, yelling over the wind at a dog team and cursing to stop and untangle and comb the chaotic lines running to the harnesses, frostbite black fingers and deathly panic that you will not make it back, that the storm will eclipse your way home and you will turn into a piece of ice statuary with your animals, never to emerge again from the frozen land.  The graceful smile of your beautiful lover… it is balanced by the death run of a fish on the line, a steel hook piercing its mouth, penetrating its scaly armor forever until its dead and clean and then part of your body.

I still do have a bit of squeamishness about accepting this contract, about killing an animal, looking at it, dissecting it, cleaning it, cooking it (sometimes), and eating it… but mostly I have the curiosity of a surgeon, a love for looking into the beautiful complex inventions of this universe, breathing deep and giving thanks for that creature… making it me.  We’ve been having some really good meals:

That’s an Arctic Char, caught by Ben P.  We’ve gone out with Mary Avalak several times and learned the ways she has caught fish for her whole life, killed them, cleaned them with her ulu, and prepared them.  Watching her work with the fish is like watching a carpenter with a saw… except more.  One night, while we cleaned a cod and all the guts came spilling out of it, I said, “All of that is in us.”  She looked at me and scrunched her nose.  Later on I was asking her about growing up in Wellington Bay (about 50 miles West of here) and she got this look of serenity and said, “I love it there, I love that life… that life, you can see what you do.”  She was describing her time really before significant “contact,” her time on the land with her parents, growing up on the land, with just one other family… a life and way of work where you can see what you do.

There’s more to the story of the ice and travels… but it’s past two in the morning now and will have to wait until soon.